Sandra Aylward is a pharmacy professional with experience in community pharmacy practice, corporate leadership, pharmacy advocacy, regulation and organizational governance. A graduate of the Dalhousie University College of Pharmacy, she was named their Alumnus of the Year in 2004. Sandra has served as president of the Nova Scotia College of Pharmacists, the National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities (NAPRA), the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, and the Canadian Association of Chain Drug Stores (now the Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada). A former vice-president of professional and regulatory affairs for a major pharmacy chain, she now practises as an independent consultant. Since 2017, she has served as the Senior Advisor, Regulatory Affairs for PrescribeIT® (Canada’s national e-prescribing service) in Atlantic Canada, and as public representative on the Governing Council of the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons.
-What excites you about being a pharmacist?
At the beginning of my career, I was most excited about how I could help to improve the health and lives of my individual patients. That was my focus, and I still believe that the day-to-day encounters between pharmacists and their patients are where “the rubber hits the road” – that’s where our ultimate value is made real. As I had more opportunities to connect and work with a wide variety of people and organizations, I have become more and more interested in how pharmacists can work together as a community of professionals to improve the health care system on a broader scale in Canada.
-When you graduated, what did you envision for your future?
I planned to spend my entire career in community pharmacy practice. I loved that work, and was happily contemplating continuing there indefinitely. Although things worked out differently, I would have been equally proud today if I had practiced all these years in community pharmacy.
-How has your career evolved since you first started in the profession?
The nature and scope of pharmacy practice began to evolve while I was working as a staff pharmacist in the community (80s and 90s). Our responsibilities, our approach to providing care began to change with a focus on the person versus a focus on the drug therapy. It was exciting. My interest in other roles started with serving on a College committee. That opened my eyes to the possibility of working in a role that was wider in scope – providing operational support to large numbers of pharmacies and pharmacy teams. Once I decided to pursue those opportunities, I found many areas in which I could contribute, starting with regional pharmacy operations, continuing through elected positions in pharmacy organizations, and then moving into advocacy, policy development and risk management. For over 20 years, I was fortunate to be part of a team whose primary responsibility was to ensure the successful operation of over 200 community pharmacies across Canada. Four years ago, I decided to put that experience and learning to work in the wider healthcare environment, so I became an independent consultant.
-How would you describe a great day at work?
My best days always include connecting with people (one-on-one or in teams) to have conversations that move our shared goals forward. I am fascinated by other people’s perspective and am constantly learning from that. I also enjoy doing research and writing, which require solitude, peace and quiet. These days, I have a good mix of both. A great day also includes re-connecting with a friend or colleague in the profession and hearing about their work (and life) – nurturing the relationships that make work (and life) worthwhile.
-What is (or has been) your greatest challenge as a leader in pharmacy?
Pharmacists (and other people, too) prefer to have lots of information before making a decision. However, it often happens in areas like strategy that we don’t have as much information as we’d like to. In those situations, it can be challenging to help a group make a decision on a position. I’ve had to learn to be comfortable knowing that we seldom have “all the data”, and we have to be nimble enough to adapt as the situation changes.
-How important was mentoring in your career?
I have been fortunate to work with people who were highly skilled and willing to share their knowledge in areas where I had a lot to learn. I’m talking about the subjects that we didn’t learn in pharmacy school: financial management, governance, human resources, professional regulation, negotiations, public relations.
I also benefited from their advice as I learned to navigate the corporate environment, and understand how culture affects behaviour and performance in an organization.
It was significant for me that there were individuals in senior leadership positions who supported me. At critical times, these people challenged me to consider taking on a new role, and endorsed me for those opportunities. This “sponsorship” is just as important as mentorship.
-Was there an “aha” moment for you, when you realized the impact of the difference you’re making?
Two kinds of “aha” moments come to mind. The first is the multiple times that I’ve been involved in negotiating with governments on behalf of pharmacies. I always felt the responsibility of that work because it affected every pharmacy in the province. There was always a moment of reflection when we concluded a hard-fought negotiation, and sometimes we celebrated the result more than others.
The second is when someone I’ve worked with or helped takes the time to let me know that my advice or my support has made a difference to them. It never fails to delight me, and to remind me how we can all have a positive impact.
-As a leader in pharmacy, what continues to drive you?
The desire to contribute drives me now more than ever. I want to use my particular experience and skills in very strategic ways to be part of the advancement of the profession, and healthcare generally.
-Looking at your career, what are you the proudest of?
I’m proud of the ways that I supported community pharmacy teams by telling the public about their value, building good operational policy frameworks, and working to constantly improve the standard of practice.
I’m also proud of my service with both regulatory and advocacy organizations – they are two distinct but important parts of our professional ecosystem.
What have been some of the highlights of your career?
I am so privileged to have been working in pharmacy as we stepped into the most significant expansion of our scope of practice that any of us had ever seen, starting around 2005. It was a highlight for me to be certified to administer drugs by injection, and to participate in providing influenza vaccinations. I was excited to be part of the operational implementation of services such as assessment and prescribing for minor ailments.
-Do you feel there is a glass ceiling for women in pharmacy?
It still is seen as a little “unusual” when a woman takes on the role of CEO or other senior executive position in pharmacy. Although there have been many examples of women who served successfully in these roles, we are still not found there in the numbers that we would expect, given the demographics of the profession.
-Women are making a big name for themselves in pharmacy. What does this mean to you professionally and personally?
I’m proud. I celebrate this both personally and professionally. I am glad to see great role models for the next generation in the profession. It’s part of the healthy evolution of our society.
-What do you think needs to happen to have more women in executive roles across various sectors in the profession?
First, we need to encourage women who are thinking about taking on leadership roles to disregard that inner voice that sometimes tells us that we need more experience or qualifications. Be brave, and ask for help when you need it. You have more to offer than you think.
Secondly, those of us who believe that we need more women in these roles need to take steps to actively support those women who express an interest and step forward to serve. Make introductions, serve as a reference, or make calls on behalf of someone running for an elected position.
-What advice would you give to new female pharmacy graduates?
Stay curious, be brave about using your talents, and remember that progress – however small – is still progress.